Feeling the Gravitational Pull of Priesthood Ordination for Women?

"Houston, do you copy? Are you there? Anyone? Do you hear me?  Please copy. I am off structure, and I am drifting! Anyone? Do you copy? I’m detached! I can’t breathe! I’m spinning!!! What do I do? WHAT DO I DO?!”  –  Dr. Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) from“ the movie Gravity.

Talk about a conundrum. She’s an astronaut hurtling through outer space in an untethered spin--drifting further away from her spacecraft (and Earth) into the dark cold empty void. There’s nothing she can hold onto, nothing to stop her trajectory, nothing for her to push or pull against. There’s no one to hear her voice, no one with whom she can connect. Her terror becomes our terror as Gravity excruciatingly juxtaposes the hostile vast universe against our fragile human selves.  One movie critic aptly observed, “That everything that lives and everything that has ever lived should hang suspended in the midst of such emptiness is a realization so daunting and profound that it can turn an atheist into a religious person and a religious person into an atheist.  Such spiritually inspiring and destabilizing realities form the undercurrent of Gravity” (LaSalle, 2013, SF Gate, para. 6).

What’s my point? As Mormon women, Dr. Stone’s gritty voyage home mirrors our own as we navigate this turbulent mortal existence. Grit runs through our Mormon veins. Our Mormon foremothers’ “spiritually inspiring and destabilizing realities” included societal oppression and persecution, homelessness, and plural marriage. Talk about guts and grit--these women owned it. Today’s Mormon women show our own grit as we navigate our families through an increasingly oppressive, secularized, and sexualized society. Unfortunately, we see another destabilizing reality within the ranks of our sisterhood.

“’Mission Control’ in Salt Lake City, do you copy? Are you there?  Do you hear us? Please copy,” pleads a group of Mormon sisters who are agitating for priesthood ordination and “gender equality” within the Church.

How do we define equality—in society and within Mormonism? Does gender equality include the innate right of priesthood ordination of women? This issue is nothing new. Feminist agitators desiring priesthood authority use arguments that have been around since the Church was organized.  However, the internet has changed everything. Grass-roots activism is now much more effective and efficient through social media. And, with today’s definition of “gender equality” evolving into “gender sameness,” younger women are more inclined to accept “gender sameness” as a legitimate ethos to live by and thus codify—within society and within the Church.

Mormon feminist agitators truly believe their mission is a spiritually inspiring one. Their painful feelings of marginalization and oppression by patriarchal priesthood authority are real. In many ways, today’s Mormon women exemplify the guts and grit required of our contemporary faith. We’ve got our own brand of turbulent “destabilizing realities” that test our faith. Some of these realities might include a faltering faith in the Prophet, other Church leaders, male priesthood authority, the Church as an organization, or its doctrine. Unfortunately, many LDS church members are renouncing their memberships because of these issues.

“Yes. Yes, I copy. I’m drifting!!” - Dr. Stone breathlessly informs the more experienced astronaut, Lt. Matt Kowalski (played by George Clooney).

"What's your position?" he asks.

"I don't know!!!"

"Give me a visual!" he responds.

"I told you!! Nothing!! I see nothing!!!" Her panic is rising.

"You need to focus on anything...the ISS (International Space Station), the sun (or the Son?), and the earth. Give me your coordinates!" demands Lt. Kowalski in rising desperation.

"I DON'T KNOW!!!!!"

So, what’s a woman to do? As an astronaut untethered to her spacecraft, or a Mormon woman untethered to her faith, the scenario is daunting. (And don’t we all feel untethered to our faith at times?) Eventually, our movie heroine figures it out and gets it right. Gradually removing her blinders of fear, presumption, and despair, Dr. Stone’s equanimity shines as she struggles through a series of heart and gut-wrenching decisions. Surrendering to her emotions is unthinkable. Thus, we cheer her determination when it overrides her panic and despair. Her triumph is ours too when Dr. Stone finally concludes, “It’s time to stop driving. It’s time to go home.” Transcending her emotions had required extraordinary grit. Painfully and poignantly, Dr. Stone repeatedly personifies grace under horrific pressure. (By the time she finally reached Earth at the movie’s end, I had so much anxiety, I needed a Xanax!)

"Detach! Focus! Listen to my voice! You need to focus!" - Shouts Lt. Kowalski. "I'm trying!  I'm trying!!!" breathes Dr. Stone as she desperately tries to save herself.

As an instructor of argumentation at San Jose State, my directions to my students reflect Lt. Kowalski’s. I teach students how to detach or untether themselves from old mindsets. I teach them to suspend their judgment—if only temporarily—in order to gain focus and clarity. Without clarity, students can’t think critically or engage in critical decision making. Without critical thinking, they can’t effectively argue, advocate, or defend. Suspending judgment requires students to transcend their assumptions and prejudices—in other words, they learn to recognize and remove their blinders just as Dr. Stone did. Every semester is an uphill battle:  students insist they’re not wearing blinders. They don’t need to let go. They don’t want to let go. They don’t see their reasoning as tainted or distorted, thus many take offense at being challenged. Others take offense when I ask them to challenge the status quo. They often become indignant—with me and/or each other. “Listen to me,” I tell them. “You need to focus!  Letting go is dirty work. It requires self-discipline, self-vigilance. Letting go means discovering your vulnerability to safe but false notions. You’ll discover new ideas along with the dead end ones.” It’s a scary process.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!! YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!!!” -  screams Dr. Stone. After a series of life-threatening calamities, Dr. Stone made her way to a space station and boarded the parked space-shuttle to fly home. Only to discover its gas tank is empty.

Talk about a dead end for Dr. Stone! (In that moment as the theatre audience, we wanted to give up and die with her!) However, her dead end isn’t really dead. Her circumstances force Dr. Stone “to get it right” by creating a new mindset in order to create a new beginning. The movie thrives on this theme. So it is with my students. Like Dr. Stone, most of them “get it right”---but only for a while. Most students (and young people) don't yet realize one of life’s hardest truths: they are clueless as to how many times they’ll have to repeat this process time again throughout their lives. Every new mindset, idea, and experience requires choices. And every choice requires this critical thinking process. Like Dr. Stone, my students think they’ve made it and they're all done. They've overcome a mindset or an obstacle--only to encounter another. Another hard truth: this painful process becomes increasingly grueling in proportion to our awareness. Our awareness of how our choices affect our lives and the lives of others. Thus, the theme of our life’s journey:  navigating through and around while confronting and overcoming our individual obstacles. Successful navigation by aborting mindsets and behavior takes guts and grit.

In my life, I’ve had to unlearn or “abort” many mindsets. I’m always in a state of unlearning and relearning. Specifically, I’ve had to unlearn some concepts taught to me in college and in the Church. In terms of college, I’ve unlearned notions of feminism, equality, and sexism. My well-meaning college professors taught me dogmatic definitions of womanhood, sexism, gender equality, justice, oppression, and emancipation. Some of my well-meaning church leaders also taught me dogmatic definitions of womanhood and gender roles. (Now, I let God define my womanhood.) Ironically, I discovered academic notions of womanhood to be just as constrained, universally oppressive, and totalitarian as any gender "constraints" within Mormonism. Here’s a couple of examples of academic constraints:

  • Some of my female students and young colleagues have confided to me their guilt in wanting to be married and have children. They feel extremely pressured by the feminist ethos to have a successful career. To rely on a man in any way is akin to sin. They speak in apologetic tones of their desire for marriage and children---and in that order. (Talk about a “destabilizing reality.”)

  • As a graduate student, I experienced a turbulent ride in the form of a Feminist Studies class. Serving as the self-appointed “rescue and recovery” team, my professor and fellow students attempted to free me from Mormonism’s “oppressive” patriarchy. Instead, they unknowingly created a hostile learning environment for me. Their dogmatism and sense of righteousness suffocated me; the more I defended Mormonism, the more indignant they became. By the end of the semester, I was exasperated and exhausted. “Look,” I told them, “if I’m ok being ‘oppressed’ by Mormon patriarchy, then why can’t that be ok with you?” Calling them “emancipatory oppressors,” I accused them of trying to disempower me with their own brand of dogmatic definitions of womanhood. They remained hostile and unapologetic. And they couldn't or wouldn't remove their own blinders to see their own hypocrisy.

“Astronaut is off-structure!”

There was an upside.The class turbulence knocked my own blinders off regarding 21st century feminism. I couldn’t reconcile it with my faith and religion. So I untethered myself to feminism’s doctrinal structure. I found definitions of feminism and womanhood to be subjective notions. In fact, most “truths” are in reality, subjective perceptions. A “just and equitable world” is a subjective perception. So is the idea of “social justice.” Even the definition of logic is subjective. What’s logical to one person or culture will not be logical to another. Thus, too many contemporary feminist theories are socially and culturally constructed and therefore too fragile and fallible. A universal “one-size-fits-all” feminist ethos simply doesn’t work in America or in a worldwide context. And I bet it doesn’t work in the eternities either.

“How did you get here?” – Dr. Stone to Lt. Kowalski

Let me pause here for a moment and ask this question: What would happen if LDS feminist agitators got their way and the Church began ordaining women to the priesthood? Let's examine this line of reasoning. Surely, a seismic shift would inevitably turn the Church and its doctrine upside down. Whether or not LDS feminists acknowledge it, female ascendancy would have to underpin every fundamental tenet of Mormonism and Christianity. In other words, the ethos of “gender equality” and “inclusion” would require a new framework in terms of the Godhead, a gender-free Savior, and a gender-free Satan. (All the key figures are male!) 

An overhaul of creationism would also result: Michael, the archangel, is male. Eve is taken from Adam’s male rib. Eve’s subsequent covenants with God are through Adam’s male priesthood line. God, the ultimate authority, is male. And that’s only the beginning of doctrinal changes!  I’m not saying female inclusion is innately wrong. I like the idea of worshiping a Heavenly Mother in the Godhead and taking part in more priesthood ordinances. But I don't need it to sustain my faith or improve my relationship with the Savior. In any case, LDS feminists seem way too dismissive regarding these huge doctrinal ramifications. They talk about ordaining women as though it’s simply a Church policy and procedure issue. It’s not. The 21st century brand of feminism demands inclusion on every level.

“I’m spinning!  I have no GPS!” –  Dr. Stone

Furthermore, who would decide these doctrinal changes? Would the Church call a special task force of men and women? How would this panel be decided? The Church is not a democracy. Thus any agitation for change coming from Church members would still have to go through the Prophet. But the Prophet represents male patriarchal authority. In short, he’s a man. According to contemporary feminism the Prophet’s maleness automatically discredits and thus disqualifies him. After all, his male gender is part of the problem of gender inequity and oppression within the Church. His maleness automatically taints his decision-making process.

Let’s look at this scenario from another direction: What if we include the Quorum of Twelve Apostles in the decision-making process? But again, they’re all men. So, what if the Quorum of the Twelve was composed of males and females? Again, how would the Church choose female apostles? This line of reasoning leads us back to square one: Any change or approval would have to go through the Prophet. But, remember, he’s a man. We could build an argument around the idea that a female apostle would eventually ascend to preside over the Church despite the Church’s patriarchal and male origins. However, Jesus Christ (as the head of the Church) is still a male. God the Eternal Father is still a male. The Holy Ghost is still a male. Even if a Heavenly Mother is included in the Godhead, she would still be outnumbered 3-1 by males. Perhaps I sound over-the-top or over-reaching in my conclusions. But I don't think so. Twenty-first century definitions of gender equality require these conclusions.

Some LDS feminists claim that ordaining women is not about “sameness.” One website proposes “equality is not about sameness...it’s about removing obstacles to access and opportunity” within the Church. I disagree. This proposition is about sameness. How could it not be? How else could we define our role as women unless we juxtapose it to the male gender model or approach? What other model is there? There isn't any. Thus, women would have to fashion our own model. (Sounds good to me—but only to a point.) Designing our own model would require us to fashion our own "gender equitable" divine origins along with our own historical narratives. We would have to find a way to include these narratives in scripture. We could not rely on God to define our model because He’s male. Ultimately, women would have to design their own goddesses, saviors, and angelic figures. (Actually, I like that idea. But, how would we, as fallible human beings, be able to do this? Hopefully, our Heavenly Mother would show us the way. But how could we tell if our inspiration came from a Heavenly Mother or our Heavenly Father? Besides, the Holy Ghost is male. So how could we be sure our inspiration isn't tainted?)

Finally, I propose the idea that words like “access,” “obstacles,” and “opportunity” also fall under the same thorny totalitarian and subjective constraints I discussed previously. These ideas cannot be clearly defined by limited human perspectives and contexts. For this reason, I will never attach or place my faith in LDS feminist agitators. They, along with their doctrine, are too imperfect, too subjective, and too fallible. Surely, these sisters are well-meaning, and I respect and appreciate their concern for equality. But whether they admit it or not, these sisters wear their own brand of blinders.

“Detach! You must detach from that arm (the mechanical arm of the disabled space station). If you don’t, it will carry you out too far into space! Focus! Listen to my voice! You need to focus! ” -  Shouts Lt. Kowaslski at Dr. Stone--while the mechanical arm grips her in a death spin.

Isn’t it easier to just let go and detach? Untether ourselves from human fallibility, negative or angry paradigms, distorted definitions, assumptions, our pride, our need to be right? Unlearn and relearn! Like our pioneer foremothers, let’s muster up our guts! It’s hard. It can be humiliating. And it’s oddly empowering.  Because in transcending our perceptions, we discover that our view of the world is not the view of the world. And we’re reminded that human perspectives are not God’s perspectives. Despite intense suffering, Dr. Stone learned this lesson. She let go. Again and again. And, in letting go, she saved her life.  Do we need to let go to save our spiritual selves?

“You’re breathing too hard! Sip the oxygen! Don’t gulp it!” –  advises Lt. Kowalski to Dr. Stone due to her limited oxygen supply.

In writing this very long post, I'm going to switch gears and bring Jesus Christ’s atonement into this discussion. Feminist agitators seem more focused on empowering sisters through Church leadership than through Christ’s atonement. I can understand their stance regarding Church leadership, and I do agree with them---to a point. Yes, women should have an equal voice within the Church as an organization. (I’d like to see more autonomy given to Church women’s organizations and “laying on of hands” in matriarchal authority as our LDS foremothers did. Regardless, it’s still not an issue with me.) Yet, again---how do we define “equal” or “equal opportunity?” And who would determine the equity? These questions bring us back to our previous line of reasoning regarding male priesthood patriarch and authority. The authoritative source to determine equity would still come from a patriarchal male source—a patriarchal lineage and authority decreed as the order of Heaven. So again, we’re back to square one in regard to issues of “male dominance.” Call me naive, but I decided years ago to muster up the patience and faith and wait on the Lord (a male) and trust His timetable when all will be revealed for our greater understanding.

Feminist agitators also claim that the Church perpetuates “institutionalized powerlessness” against women. I disagree. There’s a huge difference between limitless personal spiritual empowerment versus institutional empowerment through Church leadership via female priesthood authority. (And female priesthood authority is already exercised in the temple.) Sapping our spiritual and emotional strengths and resources in attempts to cast out Church patriarchy seems counterproductive. Our focus (and I include men) veers from our ultimate source of power: our Savior Jesus Christ. Hence, instead of feeling powerful, inevitably we feel victimized. Feelings of anger, frustration, and sorrow eclipse, peace, joy, and love. I believe that direct empowerment from Jesus Christ has exponentially more power, more light, more force---more everything than any feminist definition of “Church leadership and positional authority.”  Perhaps other LDS women see no distinction between these two concepts, but I surely do.

“I have a daughter. Tell her I’m not quitting!” –  Dr. Stone’s request to Lt. Kowalski after learning that he will not survive their ordeal. Her young daughter had recently died, thus Dr. Stone wants him to deliver this message to her daughter after he dies.

"Mother and Daughter" by Pino Daeni

In the rest of this post, I’ll discuss oppressive tendencies within the realm of Mormonism. I agree with feminist agitators that oppression does exist within the Church. Earlier, I proposed that any form of totalitarianism or a universal “one-size-fits-all” feminist approach won’t work. Well, any long-time Mormon knows that a universal cookie cutter approach doesn’t cut it in Mormonism either. I’ve had to detach and “unlearn” a lot of false and suppressive doctrines sometimes perpetuated in Church meetings and often in Church culture. Similar to the well-meaning but oppressive women in my Feminist Studies course, individual Church members are guilty of their own brand of oppression. Inevitably, we, as Church members, distort gospel doctrine through our personal narrow, confined lenses—and in the process oppress, suppress, and basically cause each other a lot of hurt and annoyance.

During my 55 years as a Mormon woman, wife, and mother, I’ve shed a lot of tears because of destructive dogmatic opinions taught to me by fellow Church members. Unfortunately, their individual definitions of perfectionism, womanhood, and motherhood felt just as oppressive as my experiences with academic feminist dogma. (Surely, I’ve seeded and spread my own distortions--even as I write this post!) Please don’t misunderstand me. I have always felt great love and respect for the members of the wards and stakes I’ve lived in. Their love, service, sacrifice, and friendship have sustained me and my family throughout my life. But I’ve also realized that like any family, my ward and stake “families” were/are just as screwy and fallible as me. So why would I allow them or anyone else define me or my role as a woman? And why would I attempt to define another sister or her role as a woman? I don’t have that right. No one does—except for Jesus Christ--who is male.

I’ve never desired priesthood ordination. But as a young woman, I “gulped for air” while struggling with my faith. Back then, facets of Mormon patriarchy threatened to suffocate it:  plural marriage, priesthood correlation, patriarchal scriptural narratives, and the overwhelming disproportion of scriptural male and female role models. (Really, what Mormon woman hasn’t struggled with any one of these issues?) To avoid suffocating my faith, like Dr. Stone, I learned to “sip” during times of doubt and fear. Reading endless books on LDS doctrine didn’t help---I only felt worse. Therefore, I went directly to the source: God. My angry sulky approach to Him obscured His response to me. With great effort I forced myself into a new mindset. Relief (oxygen) through the Spirit came when I morphed my indignation into a humble, “thy will be done” request. No visions or heavenly beings appeared. The Spirit simply moved me to greater faith, increased understanding, and peace—in other words, just enough oxygen to get me through.

In my endless process of unlearning and relearning, I’ll share a few more observations:

  • The more I learn the less I know. I take great comfort in this.

  • Having more questions than answers is part of our mortal experience.

  • Not knowing is ok. I’ve learned to live in and with uncertainty. I call it “faith.”

  • Our pride claims the uncertain to be certain.

  • Without humility, we tend to “know” all the answers.

  • “Know-it-alls” have to be right and thus never make mistakes. That’s too much work for me, and I can’t do it anyway. It’s much easier to say, “I don’t know.”

  • Acquiring knowledge is not equivalent to acquiring wisdom. And it’s not as valuable.

  • We all tend to state our opinion as fact.

  • Open discussion about sensitive and difficult topics that question Church authority is not inherently bad or evil. Intent, however, is the key. Too many people want to contend rather than discuss.

  • Questioning doctrine is not equivalent to apostasy. (Yes, I know—the slippery slope argument.  But healthy questioning is possible without sliding into hell.)

  • I have confidence in my Heavenly Mother. I feel confident that she was my teacher and mentor in my pre-mortal life. Now, in mortality, I have the opportunity to develop an intimate relationship with my Heavenly Father.

  • Heavenly Mother is a powerful intelligent being. I’m sure she can take care of herself without having to hide behind Heavenly Father. So please don’t tell me she’s invisible to us because Heavenly Father is trying to “protect” her. I’m not buying it.

  • At some point, we will come to know our Heavenly Mother once again. I wonder if she made the choice to remain hidden.

  • I don’t need “the Brethren” or the priesthood to validate me. My testimony doesn’t require it. I do need Jesus Christ to validate me.

  • There’s a difference between waiting and waiting well. I’m learning to do the latter.

  • Men are not “the priesthood.” I wish a lot of LDS people would stop referring to men in that manner.

  • The only times I truly listen and completely respect my husband’s words to me are while he’s pronouncing a priesthood blessing upon me or my children. (Yes, I know I sound like a terrible wife.)

  • Now, I’ll sound even more terrible. Without his priesthood, my husband would not be as spiritually savvy as I am. No brag, just fact---and he agrees with me on that.

  • I’m obviously not the Prophet, but I have acquired the spiritual gift of prophesy. And through my faith, I can obtain other “gifts of the Spirit” listed in the New Testament, The Book of Mormon, and in the Doctrine & Covenants. These spiritual gifts are available to men and women. They further empower us as women, wives, sisters, and mothers.

  • Spiritual and institutional empowerment cannot be obtained through contentious mindsets or behaviors. However, the humble “prayers of the righteous availeth much.”

  • I can pray earnestly and humbly about any doctrine, and the Lord will respond and quiet my fears. Now that's empowerment!

  • The Lord will not reveal Himself to a blabbermouth.

Learning the above was and still is akin to torture. Talk about creating new mindsets! But the dirty hard work was and continues to be worth it. Because here’s what I know for sure: I no longer care if the Church is “oppressively patriarchal.” I’m not leaving it. And I’m staying loyal to it. Jesus Christ heads this Church of fallible men and women. And that’s good enough for me.

 Artist: Michelangelo

In our crisis of faith do we frantically search for our own “red shoe?” Do we use up our precious “oxygen” and energy in our searching-- only to discover it was in plain sight all along? Do we need to examine what’s floating around in our individual and collective orbits? Do we need to detach? I propose we take off our individual blinders and detach from diversionary tactics. Detach from our indignation by unlearning human-made presumptions. Detach from the wreckage of anger and perceived injustice. Detach from destabilizing forces and realities. Detach and protect ourselves from orbiting debris of dissension. Detach and tune out negative distracting static.

What’s more, we need to remember this vital fact: What we orbit, our children orbit. My sons’ and especially my daughters’ attitudes regarding women’s power (or lack of it) in Mormonism have been largely influenced by me, their mother. That’s empowering, sobering, and frightening. Recently, I listened to one sister from the “Ordain Women” organization tearfully describe “the sadness” of her 7-year-old daughter.  Her little girl is sad because she and her mother lack priesthood authority and therefore “power” in the Church. I respectfully ask this mom: How is it possible for a 7-year-old girl to be sad about adult concepts unless her mother tells her to be sad? Faithfulness or dissent (in any form) usually begins with the parents. Dr. Phil claims that the biggest influence in a child’s life is the same sex parent. So mothers, what kind of role model are we for our daughters?  Is there such a thing as dissenting faithfulness or faithful dissent?  Are those concepts an oxymoron? I don’t know. However, I do know this:  As mothers, what we decide to tether ourselves to and orbit around determines our legacy--and our children’s legacy.

“Where’s home to you, Dr. Stone? Is there somebody down there or looking out for you?” –  Lt. Kowalski

So how do we “get it right?” How do we “stop driving and get home?” How do we transcend our fear to maintain our faith? How do we muster up guts and grit and get a grip with grace? If we decide to detach and let go, to whom do we attach ourselves?  It’s simple. Jesus Christ. And I don’t care that He’s male. When Christ atoned for our sins, He atoned for the sins of men and women. So because He’s familiar with both male and female suffering, He can empathize and succor us perfectly—regardless of gender. I can’t say enough about our Savior:

  • He is our home.

  • He is to whom we tether ourselves.

  • He is our compass, our light, our pilot.

  • He is an equal opportunity instructor. He is no respecter of gender, age, or ethnicity.

  • He is our role model because He is the essence of male and female perfection.

  • He fills and controls the universe, so He can fill the void in our own universe.

  • He is our source for spiritual and emotional empowerment.

“Focus.” Dr. Stone overcame her initial panic each time she focused on Lt. Kowalski’s voice. We, too, can stop our fears from grinding away at our faith when we focus on our Savior’s voice and tether ourselves to Him. Yes, His voice of rescue is patriarchal, male and, at times, commanding. But in the end, who cares? Does Dr. Stone begrudge her rescuer for being male? No. And I believe LDS women must reach the same conclusion regarding patriarchal priesthood authority if our faith is to survive and thrive. The gender of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ (along with their patriarchal, male-dominated priesthood, lineage, and church) is ultimately a non-issue in mortality. A greater or better source of gravity other than Jesus Christ simply does not exist. Therefore, I will obey THE source of gravity. It’s the law. He's the law.

If you've read this far, I thank you!  Mission accomplished…I’m home.